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SPEAKER:
Thank you for watching. And for a full transcript, visit fun4thedisabled.com. We hope you enjoy.

VANESSA HARRIS:
This is Vanessa Harris of Fun 4 the Disabled. I’m here with Commissioner Rachel Arfa, the Commissioner of the Mayor’s Office for the City of Chicago, Mayor’s Office for People with Disability. Hello, Commissioner Arfa.¬†Commissioner Rachel Arfa serves as the City of Chicago Commissioner of the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities or MOPD. Commissioner Arfa was appointed Commissioner by Mayor Lori Lightfoot in July of 2020. Commissioner Arfa is the first deaf Commissioner of MOPD and the highest-ranking deaf person to serve in a city government leadership role anywhere.¬†That is so impressive. So Commissioner Arfa, can we talk about your background a little bit? Can you talk about your hearing loss?

RACHEL ARFA:
My dad took me to the doctor when I was nine months old. And, he said, ‘I think that she can’t hear, I think there is something wrong, and the doctor said, ‘No, she’s fine. But then, when I was 18 months old, I was in a babysitter’s house. And I was running down the street with my friend and the babysitter said stop and my friend stopped and I kept running. And, she noticed that this had happened a number of times and she said to my parents, Yeah, would you maybe to get her hearing checked? You should take her to the audiologist. And sure enough, the audiologist said to my parents that I had hearing loss and my parents had never met a deaf person. They had no idea how to raise a deaf kid. Yeah, that’s very common. 90 to 95% of deaf children are born to hearing parents.

So, my parents then had to make choices about how to raise me and my education and all of that, and navigate all of that. And, I give them so much credit for other sacrifices they made.

VANESSA HARRIS:
So, your brother didn’t have any hearing problems?

RACHEL ARFA:
So, I’m happy to talk about my brother. I am seven years older than him and I used, I would babysit him, and when the phone would ring, maybe when he was three or four years old, I would ask him to answer the phone and interpret for me (LAUGHS). And, he would then mouth, OK, this is so and so, or this mom calling or this is Emily. And, I would ask him to tell me what they were saying, and he would interpret. So, I think that my brother decided when he was five that he did not want to interpret anymore. So then, I had to rely on technology and be independent and use my own, use the technology. And at that time, it was a TTY. It’s what I used, the TTY to make phone calls, TTY really. So, and I will say one thing about my brother is that he has perfect hearing. He can identify a problem with my car. He would know if there’s something up or some other problem, he could take notice within ten seconds of that. Which is the opposite of me, my ability to hear what’s happening at my car. So, obviously, then I have a little brother and I would have liked for him to interpret for me a little bit more but I get it (LAUGHS). But, he didn’t wanna do it anymore. But I think that’s common the families of hearing loss that the person with hearing is asked to interpret. But, then what happens when a hearing person who has not lived with a deaf person will sometimes look for another hearing person to communicate for the deaf person. And, that is a big pet peeve of mine. I do not like when people avoid communicating with me. It is usually because they are nervous or because it’s inconvenient for them. I’d rather they communicate directly with me. And, sometimes that happens. So, because of my deaf speech, people would ask me to repeat what I’m saying. But, instead of taking the time to ask me to repeat it, they will just say to the hearing person, ‘What is she saying’?

VANESSA HARRIS:
Yeah.

RACHEL ARFA:
So, that’s just something that really taught me how to advocate for myself to make sure that I was being heard. And, I know every disability already has its own barriers, but I really believe that we are the one learning different strategies for problem-solving. And, say that the people with disabilities are the best problem solvers around. It is because we have to solve these problems every single day, and I think that that makes us very competitive in terms of employment and other types of opportunities. It’s that problem-solving skill. We need to emphasize that more.

VANESSA HARRIS:
That’s true of people with all kinds of disabilities. You usually have to advocate for yourself because nobody’s gonna do it for you.

RACHEL ARFA:
You do. And many of us grow up with parents or other family members around to teach us how to advocate and who encourages us. But ultimately, there’s that moment where you find your voice, I don’t mean voice or the text, technical sense, but voice meaning even in signing, however, you communicate. That moment when you realize your own perspective matters and what you ask, it matters and that is worth advocating for.

VANESSA HARRIS:
Yeah. What kind of accommodations did you need in college and law school?

RACHEL ARFA:
In college, I used real-time captioning and I used signing with interpreters. And then, when I was at law school I used real-time captioning because going to law school was like learning a new language. and it was so important for me to have direct access to the language and terminology used by my professors and my classmates. It’s no different than learning French, Spanish or any other language because the students are learning the language and how to speak and how to use it. And so, I felt like I had moved to another country sometimes just because of how to make sense of the language and it was so important for me to have that access. It really prepared me for my career ahead as an attorney.

VANESSA HARRIS:
OK. Thank you very much. So, the next question I have is twofold. I want you to give me in your own words. After having worked with people with disabilities as a civil rights attorney for at least ten years, what would you define as disability, and how does intersectionality fit into that?

RACHEL ARFA:
So, the question was about intersectionality and disability. And, I think that is so important because other people believe that disability is just one identity, that’s absolutely not true. Disability is intersectional, whether it’s your gender or identity or your race or your ethnicity. For example, the experience of a black woman with a disability is gonna be very different than a white man with a disability. And, we have to talk about intersectionality and we have to understand and ensure that we’re able to put in accessibility from the start considering that there are different identities, and that is something that I take very seriously and I try to do in my work as well. And, making sure that the work takes an intersectional approach.

VANESSA HARRIS:
OK. Alright, thank you. OK. So, how does MOPD address intersectionality?

RACHEL ARFA:
So, we are using the public services to make sure that we reach every single neighborhood in the city of Chicago. We have fifty wards in the city of Chicago, with 77 neighborhoods. And, I want to make sure that no matter what neighborhood you’re in, no matter what your income status is or your background, you are able to access all of our services. And, that’s really the direction of our services and I think it is so important. And, making sure to also think about how people become disabled. For example, many people are born with a disability, many people acquire disability and there are people who become disabled as a result of gun and community violence. And, I’m gonna make sure that, and of course, there are people who have visible disabilities, there are people who have invisible disabilities. And whatever it is, you are a part of the Chicago disability community and I want to make sure that every single person can access our services and the supports that we have here and that is just something so important to me.

VANESSA HARRIS:
OK, OK. So, what is your role as the commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of People with Disabilities? What are your responsibilities?

RACHEL ARFA:
Thank you so much for asking. So as you said before, I was appointed to this role by Mayor Lightfoot in July of 2020, which means I started this role in the middle of the pandemic. And I think that the… I’ve learned so much coming to this role during the pandemic. I’m happy to share with you the many services that MOPD provides.

So for example, we have an information referral unit that provides information and helps people with disabilities access services and they will share information about, for example, if you were a person with a disability, then you need access to food. We have a partnership with Meals on Wheels which can bring meals to your home if it’s difficult to go food shopping, for example. We also have our personal assistance program where you can get up to 6 hours of assistance a week from a person. And, this is that this is similar to the program that the state of Illinois has. But, sometimes people may not qualify, for those hours, so they can’t access those services. So, we could provide a personal assistant that provides up to 6 hours of work or assistance in your home. For example, if you need help cleaning the home, doing some errands, going food shopping, preparing food, helping you with budgeting and anything else that you may need. It’s so important that people with disabilities be able to live independently in the community. And sometimes, that just takes some additional support. And that’s why we need to be able to provide that. The Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities also has a home modification program, which helps to make a home accessible for somebody with a disability. For example, if you have trouble getting into your house, if there’s, then our program (UNKNOWN) a ramp or a lift could be added to your home so that you are able to get in and out of your home. This program can help to make your bathroom accessible, for example, by adding grab bars, or they may be able to make your shower accessible by moving a tub and converting, connecting to a walk-in shower or in this case, a roll-in shower. However, the modification is what you need. Some people may need their kitchen to be made accessible so that it’s easier to access and use all of those items. So, a home modification provides that. And, I will share that during the period of the pandemic, that stage of, that big uncertainty about COVID, we pivoted and we were able to, we continued the work, working around the pandemic. Whether that brief period, maybe longer, but the brief period when it was not safe to go into people’s homes, we focused on working outside people’s homes by adding a lift or a ramp. And, that once the vaccine became available, we were able to resume the work at the people’s homes and I think this is, a program that is another main example of how we can make homes more accessible to people with disabilities is stay in their own community. I just think that’s really important and we’re really proud of that program. So, we also have applications on our website in English, Spanish, in Chinese. So, we wanna make sure that it is accessible to as many communities as possible.

VANESSA HARRIS:
Getting back to the home assistance, is that just for people with disabilities who are under the age of 60 years old?

RACHEL ARFA:
Yes, that’s correct.

VANESSA HARRIS:
OK. And for people over, people who are seniors would go to the Department of Aging for that help?

RACHEL ARFA:
The Department of Family Support Services.

VANESSA HARRIS:
OK, OK. Let’s talk about employment ’cause you have benefits counseling. So, do you work with the Social Security office and with their Ticket to Work program or does the City have a separate program for employment?

RACHEL ARFA:
We do have benefits counseling, which is provided by two staff members named Erick Lopez and Jocelyn Romasanta. And, they’re known as the best experts in providing benefits counseling. In the state of Illinois, they have so much knowledge and expertise. What they do is they provide benefits counseling to people who are beneficiaries of SSI and SSDI, who are out of work and they can provide guidance on how to maintain benefits while working. Social Security has a number of rules that make declare how much you could earn while you are working. If we do provide benefits counseling so the people can think about how much they can work while also maintaining their benefits. And, that’s a really great way for many people to be employed. And then, we also provide assistance to families and students with disabilities who attend Chicago Public Schools and have questions about maintaining their benefits as well. So, we do provide that. And in the very near future, we will be expanding our employment services, so I will have more details for you at a later date. For now, I just wanted to go through that, and do a sneak peek because I think that employment is such an important piece of work. And, I think that the pandemic has just given us an opportunity to break the mold of the way things have always been done. And, the pandemic has also created more job opportunities than ever before, and I believe this is a moment to leverage that and advocate for employment for people with disabilities. So, I don’t have the details right now but in a future date, I’ll be so very happy to share what is to come.

VANESSA HARRIS:
OK, that sounds good. Thank you. OK, what about accessibility compliance work? What does MOPD do for that?

RACHEL ARFA:
So, I’m really proud of this team. We have a deputy commissioner in compliance who is an architect and he is leading this team and we stand up with the accessibility inspectors and project cordinators. And, we do pre-permit reviews with the architects who are designing buildings for accessibility. We also provide technical assistance and a lot of other really great roles. And I think it is very important. This team has a very important role here at MOPD. And, we think that we have the right people here and my team. Great, great. Yeah, so is that really for businesses or like residences or apartment buildings or things like that?

RACHEL ARFA:
It’s a variety of people who call. But, if someone has a question, they’re welcome to call us. If we can help best direct them and help them find the guidance that they need. But, we do provide and that we work very closely with many other departments here in the city and that we also work with other contacts who are coming to us for the pre-permit review process. So, it’s been a really good resource to have here in the city.

VANESSA HARRIS:
OK, OK. What about MOPDs policy work?

RACHEL ARFA:
So, we have a policy unit where we review the different policies and advocate for people with disabilities to be a part of that. But really, that’s an essential part of our work where we look for ways to, that we’re gonna provide accessibility. And I’ll tell you about something that I’m really excited about. So last year, I spoke with Mayor Lightfoot to launch a brand new program called Accessibility Officer. Where I’ve reached out to every single department in this city and I asked them to name an accessibility officer and that person is being trained to be a point person for their department and accessibility. And, part of this came from, well, if there’s an event hosted by a department and a person with a disability wants to participate, they can then contact that access officer. So, they’d be able to make that request or to get more information. This has been so successful, in getting departments together around accessibility and I have some really talented staff members to help work with me to do this and develop subject matter knowledge and expertise and work with these different access officers. Because accessibility should not be one person alone, it’s all of us. We should all know about accessibility and I am just, and this is a testament to me and that commitment to make Chicago a more accessible city. So I’m really, that it is something that we have been very successful during the pandemic no less. And, I will say that the pandemic, many people would think that the pandemic caused work to stop, but it’s just the opposite. So much great work has happened and it has laid the foundation for so much great work to come. So, it’s such an exciting time to be here at this city. And, I know that when I come to work every single day, I work hard to make sure that every day mattered and it absolutely does.

VANESSA HARRIS:
Excellent, excellent. So, I have a question about that. So, it’s for every department. So, does that mean that the number of people with disabilities who are business owners, has increased? Do you know?

RACHEL ARFA:
So, the City of Chicago has a business enterprise for people with disabilities that could then show that anybody can sign up through. So, if you are a business owner with a disability who lives in Chicago, I highly encourage you to register with that. The state of Illinois also had a similar certification but that is through the Department of Procurement.

And also, the Business Affairs and Consumer Protection Departments can provide support in setting up a business. So, that’s something I would love to see more, well, business owners with disabilities fill out the certification so that we can track that especially if they are really new businesses that have been created. I encourage anyone who is watching/listening to check that out.

VANESSA HARRIS:
OK, OK. Alright.

That Access Officer program sounds very successful, and you’ve only been the commissioner for less than two years, and that’s been very successful. Have there been any other ones that you’ve initiated since you’ve been there?

RACHEL ARFA:
Yes. So, we have another initiative that I brought together where the Department of Human Resources and our Chief Equity Officer, Marquis Miller, is we created a disability employee resource group. So, if anybody watching today is not familiar, an employee resource group is a great way for any organization to bring together employees with disabilities. It’s meant for anybody that shares the same affinity, or group identity. For example, for women who have different backgrounds. So, this year in January, the city of Chicago launched its first employee resource group and we brought together employees with disabilities. We have a clip video on our social media about that and about why it’s important to feel that I am myself at work and why people are to create an environment where that is encouraged, whatever your identity is. And in this case, we are focusing on disability and reclaiming, claiming that positivity about disability. I think it is so important to be a role model but also to represent a disability and show that it’s an identity to be proud of. If there’s a whole community that wants you to succeed, it wants to make sure you’re connected to any of the resources. So, we have (core group, setting up members of the disability employee resource group. I am so honored to serve as the executive sponsor and when I think about leadership, it’s never just about what you do. It’s also about what leadership opportunities you build for others to develop, to grow. I love nothing more than encouraging other people to grow and develop their own leadership skills. And, it is so important. I will share another initiative what that same idea and that’s around mentoring. When I think about my own career, I think about other mentors that I’ve and mentors really are the ones that encourage you to gravitate to more opportunities. Mentors encourage you to step out of your comfort zone. For example, if you are someone who has stayed at the same job for a lot of time and you are afraid about going into a different field, a mentor will push you out of that comfort zone and say this is an opportunity you should try. They will support you, or a mentor could provide guidance or help you problem-solve some solutions. So this year, we piloted an e-mentoring program, a partnership with Aspire Chicago, which is an organization that serves people with disabilities, including people with intellectual developmental disabilities. And, Microsoft. MOPD set that up. And, I wanna thank both of these partners because they’ve been such a huge help in making this successful. And so, a mentor from Microsoft was matched with a mentee who is a person, someone in their early twenties who may be interested in could be the tech sector or another career. And, this is so important because we better open up those pathways. Already, we have seen how much enthusiasm among the mentors and the mentees because they’ve already passed. Taking a minimum of meeting times, they have already progressed. And this is something that I think is so important what they are doing. My commitment to doing this is a thank you to every mentor in my past who ever spent time with me. Editing, reviewing my cover letter or sending me a job opportunity, or pushing me out of my comfort zone. So, I really think so much about that and the main mentors who may be participating today, thank you so much. Actually, I got here because of so much support and mentors, so all of that is worth their time. So, that’s another initiative that I’m very proud of here in the city.

VANESSA HARRIS:
Alright, that’s great. Did you initiate a drug and alcohol education program for deaf students?

RACHEL ARFA:
So, that has been a program that has been here at the Mayor’s Office of People with Disabilities for approximately the last 20 years.

VANESSA HARRIS:
Oh, really?

RACHEL ARFA:
Yes, yes. So, that is a program that it was designed to provide instruction in American Sign Language to deaf and hard of hearing students about drug and alcohol prevention.

VANESSA HARRIS:
OK. OK. Does MOPD have any involvement with the rollout of the Community Engagement and Support Services Act that was promulgated by the State of Illinois last year? CESSA, does MOPD have any play in that?

RACHEL ARFA:
I know that there are many other partner states but Lori founded that work. So, I know that there are many other partners who were involved with those efforts.

VANESSA HARRIS:
Does MOPD have any plans for celebrating the ADA anniversary coming up in July?

RACHEL ARFA:
Thank you so much. I think that the ADA anniversary is so important. So July 26th this year will be celebrating the 32nd anniversary of the ADA. You know, I used to track the ADA anniversaries by year. When it was the 18th year, I would say that the ADA was old enough to vote, which, by the way, I think is so important. And that at 21, the ADA was old enough to drink and then at 30, no, 25, the ADA is old enough to rent a car. And 32, I’m trying to think up what that is but I think that the ADA celebration should not be limited to one day. So this year, we will be sending out information about the celebration at MOPD. And May 19 which is honoring the people on the accessibility awareness day, we will be hosting at the field office, which is on the West Side. I thought, this new event that I’m initiating under my leadership to kick off this season, this is a time of celebration. I think that the celebrations should go far beyond July. And so, we will be inviting different disability organizations, and I hope that you will be there, to provide information to anybody who attends. A few more surprises in the works too, but another reason honestly is because, I don’t know, I think it is a nice way to spread out over the summer season. Why should you limit it to one time? I think that the pandemic has really shown us that it is so important for all of us to be able to come together. We’re looking forward to having a moment to celebrate and honor the work done to the city of Chicago by people with disabilities. And Vanessa thank you so much for all the work that you do and your commitment to serving the people with disabilities in the city of Chicago.

VANESSA HARRIS:
Thank you. Thank you very much. Well, Commissioner, I wanna thank you very much for spending this time with us. And, is there anything else you’d like to say before we finish?

RACHEL ARFA:
Thank you so much, Vanessa, for having me join you today, which is such a pleasure. And I really enjoyed talking with you in making sure that we serve Chicagoans with disability in every one of our 77 neighborhoods. And, thank you for having me today, thank you to everybody who participated today.

VANESSA HARRIS:
OK, thanks a lot Commissioner Arfa. This is Vanessa Harris signing off. Bye. Bye.

RACHEL ARFA:
Bye, Vanessa.

 

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